Wagner hopes to stage triple-triple at Olympics

Two-time reigning U.S. champ reveals programs, banks on Arutunian, Wilson

Ashley Wagner has the right tools in place for a run at the Olympics.
Ashley Wagner has the right tools in place for a run at the Olympics. (Jay Adeff)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(07/16/2013) - With programs choreographed and schedule mostly clear, Ashley Wagner is hunkered down 5,400 feet high in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., preparing for her run at Sochi with new coach Rafael Arutunian.

"I've been traveling a lot, back and forth between California and Canada, and then shows," Wagner, 22, said. "Now, I can finally focus on training at home with Raf."

Since placing fifth at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, the two-time U.S. champion has toured with Canada's Stars on Ice and made two forays to Toronto for choreography, first with David Wilson and, earlier this month, Shae-Lynn Bourne. In between, she performed in Seoul with Yu-Na Kim's All That Skate. Finally, she trimmed her commitments, declining an invitation to perform in Mao Asada's The ICE 2013 later this month.

"It's kind of finding a balance," she said. "I think that you should always practice performing, even if it's a show. Putting yourself into a situation where you feel a little bit of pressure to perform is always good.

"On top of that, everyone has bills to pay. I had to pull out of ICE because it was too much time away and too much time to not train, but it's so hard to say no because being able to perform for the fans is always a great experience."

Wagner, a lieutenant colonel's daughter who relocated many times during childhood, has never shied away from change. In 2011, she moved cross country from the Washington, D.C., area to train under John Nicks in Aliso Viejo, Calif., where Phillip Mills created programs that helped her win two U.S. titles. She and Mills ended their creative partnership in April, and soon after, Nicks' semi-retirement helped prompt her to add Arutunian to her team.

"I went to David [Wilson] because I knew I would be pushed in a direction totally different than what I was used to," Wagner said. "For coaching, I knew I had to go to a technician, and Raf was the obvious choice." What does working with coaches 80-plus miles apart do to your schedule?

Wagner: It's really not bad. It's an easy schedule to keep up with. I train Monday through Thursday (in Lake Arrowhead), and then I drive down and train with Mr. Nicks Friday and most Saturdays. The driving is long but, you know, it's the way it is in California. How is Mr. Nicks with this arrangement?

Wagner: He has really embraced it. The change is mostly due to him. When he decided not to travel any more, I completely understood. He is turning 84 this year; he doesn't want to travel all the way to Japan and back in a week. He's been very supportive of the decisions I've been making. Rafael Arutunian is known as an excellent technician. Is that why you went to him?

Wagner: Yes, definitely. There are skaters who jump based on feeling and skaters who jump based on technique. I've always jumped on feeling. I've never worked with anyone who has really pushed technique on me.

My triple-triple (flip-toe) hasn't been consistent for a reason, and I knew I had to go to a technician. And I enjoy working with Raf so much; he has so much knowledge. What he says might not make sense to someone standing on the side listening, but to me it's so clear. You've had two solid seasons. Your goal now is the Olympic and world podium. What do you need most to be up there. Is it the triple-triple?

Wagner: It really, really is. I've had great programs, I've put together good spins. [Not having] the triple-triple, I think, is what holds me back. Maybe my jump quality needs to improve as well. It's consistency in general. Training with your good friend Adam Rippon must be a nice bonus.

Wagner: It's great to be able to train with Adam. He's been like my brother since I was 14 or 15, sort of forever. When it's Olympic season, you need someone there who is going to tell you when you're going crazy, when to calm down, and he's the perfect person for me. Nathan Chen is also there.

Down in Aliso, I train mostly with pairs skaters, so it's nice to go up the mountain to see people working on quads and triple Axels. Your free is set to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. How did you and Wilson choose it?

Wagner: When he first [proposed] this version of Romeo and Juliet, I said, 'Absolutely not, I cannot do this.' But he really pushed me. We worked really hard the week I was with him in Canada and we put together something great, I think.

David is a phenomenally creative person to work with; throughout his programs, there is always something to kind of catch your eye. He kind of took my skating to another level. He's given me a bit more of an understanding for music, phrasing and expression. It's those little details that can make a huge difference. The season before last, you did Black Swan, and the character had a touch of madness. Juliet is softer.

Wagner: I think anybody that falls that deeply in love, that fast, definitely is a little bit crazy. Especially in the Prokofiev version, you feel the tension and passion as [Juliet] is figuring out what is going to happen to the love of her life. I think that comes across. There's definitely the drama and intensity that comes along with that crazy love.

It's very different from what I've done the past couple of years. The past few seasons, I've portrayed strong women. This year, it's strong music, and the story definitely comes across, but it's a totally different character. Your short, to Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," couldn't be more different from your free. What made you turn to Bourne?

Wagner: Shae-Lynn is probably the sexiest woman alive, and I wanted to do a short more on the edgy, sexier side. I went to her for a show program this year, and what she put together (Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams") was awesome. She is such a performer and brings a unique perspective to skating.

Working with her has really pushed me; I feel I've learned how to perform a little more. That's what skating needs: competitive programs that are entertaining and fun to watch.

Bourne: Ashley wanted something that would make her look like a woman, not a girl. I really like how she's moving to "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." It's nice to see her light up and be excited about it. She needs to feel confident and strong, especially in an Olympic season. You have to own it. The music has to be in your blood. You've got Japan Open in early October, followed by Skate America and Trophée Eric Bompard. Any competitions before that?

Wagner: There's really no time in my schedule, I have so much to work on with Raf. I probably won't be doing a senior B. We're pretty much going to focus on Champs Camp (Aug. 19-25).